Notes on Recidivism

Notes on Recidivism

Barbara Armstrong

"Notes on Recidivism" by Barbara Armstrong. Alaska Justice Forum 28(4)-29(1): 4-5 (Winter/Spring 2013).This article is a brief overview of the variance in definitions of and measures of recidivism - criminal reoffending - and presents information from four major national research organizations on how recidivism is determined and measured. The nature of the offense and its relationship to recidivism, underreporting of certain crimes to authorities, juvenile recidivism rates, and national recidivism figures are also discussed.

Links to publications mentioned in this article last verified 18 Aug 2016.

Recidivism-criminal reoffending-is one of the most challenging issues facing the justice system. The recidivism rate in the U.S., according to an April 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States, is about 40 percent-four out of ten individuals who are released from incarceration will cycle back into the justice system. Recent studies in Alaska and across the nation continue to examine the costs to victims and to society when individuals reoffend and are reincarcerated, the measures for determining who is recidivating and why, and the possible strategies for reducing the rate of recidivism. Recidivism studies are important tools to assist policy makers in understanding the scope of the problem and allocating resources to deal effectively with this issue.

However, recidivism is a complex issue and definitions of recidivism and how to measure it vary. In this issue, we have two articles on recidivism. One is about the reliability of a survey instrument in use at McLaughlin Youth Center for predicting recidivism for juveniles (p. 9). The other is a study of felony and misdemeanor recidivism in Alaska (p. 6). Each of these studies uses a different definition of recidivism. Following are definitions of recidivism from four major national research organizations that illustrate the different approaches to determining and measuring recidivism.

The Pew Center on the States

In its April 2011 report State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons, the Pew Center on the States outlines recidivism as follows:

Recidivism is the act of reengaging in criminal offending despite having been punished. The prison recidivism rate-the subject of this report-is the proportion of persons released from prison who are rearrested, reconvicted or returned to custody within a specific time period. Typically, recidivism studies follow released offenders for three years following their release from prison or placement on probation. Offenders are returned to prison for one of two reasons:

1. For committing a new crime that results in a new conviction


2. For a technical violation of supervision, such as not reporting to their parole or probation officer or failing a drug test

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics website lists this definition:

Recidivism is measured by criminal acts that resulted in the rearrest, reconviction, or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner's release.

(emphasis added)

U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC)

In Measuring Recidivism: The Criminal History Computation of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines released in May 2004, two definitions are used:

The first, or "primary," definition includes the first occurring of any one of the following three types of events during the offender's initial two years back in the community:

  • a re-conviction for a new offense;
  • a re-arrest with no conviction disposition information available on the post-release criminal history record; or
  • a supervision revocation (probation or post prison supervision).

The second "re-conviction only" recidivism definition limits the recidivism definition to re-conviction events during the two year follow-up period. As such, under this secondary definition, recidivism is measured as the first occurring re-conviction for a new offense during the initial two years back in the community.

The use of two different recidivism definitions addresses the state of post-release criminal behavior.

(emphasis added)

Even the definition of a first offender may vary. In their follow-up report, Recidivism and the "First Offender," released in 2004, the USSC looked at who should be defined as a federal first offender in order to gauge risk of recidivism and determine who should be considered a first offender with regard to sentencing. The USSC report authors looked at a sample population of federal offenders in 1992 and designated three proposed first offender groups. Each group was assigned points based on criminal history. Group A had no arrests, Group B had no convictions, and Group C had only minor convictions. Under the USSC system in that report, however, all three of these groups were determined to have zero criminal history points and could be designated "first offenders" even though some of the individuals had clearly been in the justice system before. The report examined the uniqueness of first offenders based on demographic, personal, and social characteristics, and described the efforts as a "first step in an empirical discussion regarding a first offender provision."

National Institute of Justice (NIJ)

The National Institute of Justice website has a much broader definition of recidivism:

Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person's relapse into criminal behavior, often after receiving sanctions or undergoing intervention for a previous crime.

Sanctions are administered by federal, state or local jurisdictions and include all punishments that are available to the jurisdiction, such as fines, forms of community supervision and imprisonment. Interventions are programs such as drug treatment, employment training or cognitive therapies.

An individual recidivates when he or she commits a crime at any time during or after the intervention or sanctioning process.

The discussion continues:

Although recidivism is denoted by a return to crime, criminologists may not have a valid way of measuring whether a crime has occurred. Officially recorded criminal justice events such as arrest conviction are imperfect measures for assessing criminal activity because many crimes are committed without detection

Key considerations involved with measuring recidivism are:

1. How the study determines that a re-offense has occurred.

2. When the offender recidivates.

3. How risk is factored into the research design.

(emphasis added)

In sum, most sources agree that rearrests, reconvictions, and returns to incarceration are the three main ways to define recidivism. Some definitions, however, use only re-convictions on felonies; some include only re-convictions on the same type of offense as the underlying offense. For returns to incarceration, some count all returns to incarceration, whether for re-arrest, re-conviction, or a probation or parole violation. Others limit returns to incarceration to only returns for a new offense. Many include only returns to prison. In most states, where prisons and jails are separate institutions, this is a critical distinction: far fewer offenders are returned to prison than to local jails. In Alaska, with a unified corrections system, all returns to incarceration are counted, which often results in Alaska showing a higher recidivism rate than other states.

Nature of the Offense and Rate of Recidivism

Offenders committing certain types of crimes appear to have a higher likelihood of rearrest. A BJS study, "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994," reported that the highest rearrest rates in the three years following release were for motor vehicle theft, possession or sale of stolen property, larceny, burglary, robbery, and the possession, use or sale of illegal weapons.

As noted in the above NIJ study, however, some crimes are not detected or reported. Thus, the type of offense is also a consideration when studying recidivism. For example, when examining something as complicated as sexual offenses, one needs to be aware that sexual assaults are severely underreported to authorities by victims. This lack of reporting, in and of itself, results in less available data about arrests, convictions, and recidivism for individuals who commit this offense. A BJS study using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) found that during the period 1992-2000, over 60 percent of rapes were not reported to the police. And although crime reporting to police-including sexual assault crimes-appears to have increased overall during 1973-2005, sexual crimes are still underreported, according to a recent study in the journal Criminology by Eric Baumer and Janet Lauritsen.

Sexual offenses are also more complicated due to the definition of the offense itself. For example, the Uniform Crime Report definition of rape was just revised this year. The long-standing definition, "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will," now reads, "the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." This change has expanded what now is considered rape under the Uniform Crime Reports and will affect the statistics related to this offense.

Measures of Recidivism

As seen in the definitions above, varied measures are used to determine recidivism, making it difficult to compare recidivism rates, for example, among states. In some states, a large population of released offenders may be on parole or on probation. Because these individuals are under close supervision, violations of terms of their probation or parole are closely monitored and when a violation occurs, the individual may be sent back into custody. The recidivism rate for a state with this type of system will be higher than for a state with a less extensive parole/probation system and fewer individuals being monitored.

Some recidivism studies may also focus on shorter timeframes than three years due to the parameters of the study and availability of data. All of this affects any comparison with other studies.

National Recidivism Figures

Until the April 2011 Pew report, the most recent recidivism figures were from the BJS report for 1994. That study examined data for 272,111 offenders who were released in 15 states during 1994. (Alaska was not one of these states.) The measures included rearrest, reconviction, resentence to prison, and return to prison with or without a new sentence.

Within three years of their release, 51.8 percent were reincarcerated for a new prison sentence, technical violation of probation/parole, or were rearrested for a new crime. As noted earlier, the highest re-arrest rates within three years in the 1994 study were for the following offenses: motor vehicle theft (78.8%), possession or sale of stolen property (77.4%), larceny (74.2%), burglary (74.0%), robbery (70.2%), and possession, use, sale of illegal weapons (70.2% ).

The report also showed that within three years, 2.5 percent of rape offenders were rearrested for a new rape, and 1.2 percent of homicide offenders were rearrested for a new homicide.

The 2011 Pew report State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons reviewed the statistics from the BJS report on recidivism of offenders released in 1994, and also requested data on releases and recidivism from all the states for two time periods: 1999-2002 and 2004-2007. They received data from 33 states for the 1999 release date and from 41 states from the 2004 release date. Alaska was able to provide data for the period 2004-2007.

The report points out the difficulties in comparing state figures and in comparing results from the BJS study, but after adjusting for variances in data, the authors found that 45.4 percent of offenders released in 1999 and 43.3 percent of offenders released in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years. They noted that the recidivism rate between the years 1994 and 2007 has remained fairly constant at about 40 percent -but that number is still high. The study did not examine rearrest rates for particular categories of crime. It focused on the overall recidivism rate and on strategies for dealing with this issue. The efforts of three states were highlighted and descriptions of the programs in Oregon, Michigan, and Missouri were outlined.

Juvenile Recidivism Rates

Juvenile recidivism rates are another example of the complexity of the issue of recidivism. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) notes on its website that the study, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report, found that juvenile justice systems vary widely across the country. States differ in their selection of recidivism measures, sample populations, and follow-up periods when analyzing recidivism data. Moreover, in an effort to focus on ways in which the juvenile justice system is successful, many jurisdictions use performance measures to demonstrate the level of achievement for specific goals, rather than recidivism rates.


Although recent Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) show that the overall crime rate is declining, prisons still continue to be overcrowded, the cost of incarcerating individuals is growing, and financial resources are shrinking. Policy makers nationwide are in the midst of reviewing ways to make efficient use of resources both for victim assistance, and for services for offenders to reduce the risk of recidivating. Recidivism studies provide important information for policymakers to use, but it is important to keep in mind the variances in how recidivism is determined, the types of offenses examined, and that recidivism rates reflect crime that is reported to authorities. The Pew study cautions against making assumptions that if recidivism is low or high this reflects the success or failure of programs and strategies that are in place. It is important to look at all the measures used to determine recidivism and to also take into account that "recidivism rates can be influenced by larger social and economic forces. Therefore, any evaluation of recidivism data must include an understanding of this broader context and the larger policies and practices that drive the numbers." Continuing research on recidivism and the forces impacting it will help provide a clearer picture of this issue.

Links to reports and websites noted in this article are available at recidivism.html.